Conducting humanitarian operations in war zones is inevitably challenging. Delivery of effective aid demands adherence to the four key humanitarian principles laid out by the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in 1965. The first two, humanity (alleviating suffering) and impartiality (prioritizing those in greatest need), are ethical principles that make the difference between merely doling out charity and providing humanitarian relief. The second two, neutrality (not taking sides) and independence (from the government), are pragmatic principles for operating in conflict settings. In combination with international humanitarian law governing the conduct of warring parties, which affirms the right to give and receive assistance, the four principles generate the humanitarian space required to operate in war zones.
Providing humanitarian relief during civil wars (as opposed to international conflicts) is particularly difficult—perhaps never more so than during the war in Syria, where the government’s military strategy relies on attacking civilians in opposition-held areas in an effort to render life there impossible. Since getting aid to those in greatest need contradicts the government’s goal of maximizing civilian suffering in opposition-held territory, Damascus has continued to do everything it can to obstruct relief—asserting sovereignty at the diplomatic level while targeting doctors, hospitals, ambulances, and convoys on the ground. Not only does the government deny humanitarian workers access to suffering populations, it denies that it is denying access. It tries hard to justify its targeting and obstruction by insisting that there are no civilians left in opposition-held areas, just terrorists. Yet recent pictures of children starving to death in Madaya, where 40,000 civilians are under siege by the government, undermine the government’s obscene arguments.
It isn’t just the Syrian government that is increasing civilian suffering, though. The way some United Nations agencies are running their humanitarian operations causes harm, too.